What's at stake in Oracle v. Google?

'Endless litigation': No end in sight for patent, copyright wars

The stakes in Oracle's lawsuit against Google over Android are high for developers, with the recent finding by a jury that Google infringed Oracle's Java copyrights by, among other things, implementing Java's application programming interfaces (APIs] for Android.

There is still no final ruling as to whether APIs are, in fact, copyrightable, nor whether the Android's employment of them is considered 'fair use'. However, the jury has found that Google infringed Oracle's copyright.

The Free Software foundation has issued a statement saying that "Were it grounded in reality, Oracle's claim that copyright law gives them proprietary control over any software that uses a particular functional API would be terrible for free software and programmers everywhere."

FSF's executive director, John Sullivan, has described Oracle's claim as an "unethical and greedy interpretation" of copyright law.

An API (Application Programming Interface) is a way for software to use other software. Most systems are built using layers upon layers of APIs. An API does not define how something is done, only what commands can be given and what data is returned. This is similar to how you would normally use a computer. Pressing the "save" icon in your word processor will (hopefully) result in your file being saved, but you don't actually know what happens behind the scenes to make that happen.

For example, Java has an API for sending commands to the system. If you wanted your code to print out a line you would use the "System.out.printf()" method without actually knowing how it's implemented and only knowing what would happen when you sent that. This also makes it possible to implement interoperable systems: As long as your software provides the same list of features offered by a particular API, and uses the same names and structure, it will be compatible.

Oracle is claiming the list of functions in Java's APIs and their method of organisation is copyrighted and that Android is violating Oracle's copyright by implementing Java's APIs in Android.

Julie Samuels of advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation has argued that a finding that APIs can be copyrighted (as distinct from the code used to implement a particular API), it will "have a profound negative impact on interoperability, and, therefore, innovation".

Samuels argued: "APIs are ubiquitous and fundamental to all kinds of program development. It is safe to say that all software developers use APIs to make their software work with other software. For example, the developers of an application like Firefox use APIs to make their application work with various OSes by asking the OS to do things like make network connections, open files, and display windows on the screen. Allowing a party to assert control over APIs means that a party can determine who can make compatible and interoperable software, an idea that is anathema to those who create the software we rely on everyday."

Oracle's copyright claim against Google might seem rather novel, given that most recent high profile intellectual property litigation has focussed on alleged patent violations. Apple and Samsung have been locked in a series of interlocking battles over mobile patents. It's far from the only clash in the mobile space; for example, Nokia has sued HTC, BlackBerry maker RIM and ViewSonic over alleged patent infringement.

Motorola Mobility and Microsoft have been in court over patents. Yahoo has targeted social networking giant Facebook. Facebook claims Yahoo is violating its patents.

For anyone who cares about innovation, it's a depressing landscape; Dr Matthew Rimmer, associate professor at the Australian National University College of Law, describes it as a series of copyright and patent "wars" in the IT space.

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"From my perspective, it worries me — that question of trying to claim copyright in relation to part of the Java programming language," Rimmer says. "Ideally, in terms of computer programming, there needs to be a common language that programmers can draw upon to create computer programs. I just worry much [that] like with the English language certain things need to be in the public domain so that people can make use of certain sorts of languages to engage in creative expression.

"I think this case [Oracle's suit against Google] throws up quite basic issues about what is protected by copyright law and what is in the intellectual commons."

Although lawsuits over patents have had a much higher profile than litigation over copyright, Rimmer says that "it goes in phases".

"Copyright has much lower threshold to gain protection than patent law. So with patent law you have to establish there's novelty, an inventive step and utility. [With] copyright law in the United States you just have to show there's a creative spark and that's not a very high level originality required in relation to copyright protections. And copyright protection has a very long life."

"Historically it was thought there was a mismatch between copyright law and computer programs," Rimmer says. "In battles like this one you can see the awkward nature of the fit between copyright law and computer software and hardware… It's problematic at the moment that in relation to information technology there are these sweeping wars happening involving patents, and copyright, and trade secrets and trademarks.

"I'm just not sure whether those information technology wars are going to result in good outcomes for computer programming, innovation, consumer rights, competition… It just seems that these entities are going to be heavily involved in such battles for a very long time especially when you think about the length of copyright protection."

Additional reporting by Pascal Hakim.

Rohan Pearce is the editor of Techworld Australia. Contact him at rohan_pearce at

Follow Rohan on Twitter: @rohan_p

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